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Oakes Weekly - January 26, 2006
Why I Don’t Love All Microbrewers
January 26, 2006
Written by Oakes
One of the things I’ve observed in my twelve years as a beer geek is a sense of community in the industry. We do a lot of things to foster this. When microbrewing was young – and in many parts of the Western world this still holds true – you had to seek the beers out. You couldn’t just walk down to the local bar and get something decent on tap.
So beer bars developed. You’d see one, then two or even three establishments in a given city whose raison d’être was craft beer. Brewers would hang out in these places to see what other brewers were doing, and beer geeks would hang out in these places to drink the beer they’d come to love. This brought people together.
Then there are festivals. The Great British Beer Festival, the granddaddy of an established festival circuit in the UK, was the model for the Great American Beer Festival. The GABF, in turn, inspired a lot of smaller regional festivals. The concept has since expanded further to include pub festivals, charity events, beer dinners and the like. But underlying all of this was the need for small brewers to band together to get exposure in a marketplace saturated by a handful of national juggernauts. Brewers and beer geeks hang out at festivals, again fostering a sense of community.
Because of those omnipresent juggernauts, craft brewers generally presented a united face, an Us vs. Them front, a David vs. Goliath story. The battle was an uphill struggle – and in a lot of jurisdictions it still is – and only a united craft beer scene stood a chance.
This has led to an interesting relic of the industry. An attitude that crops up every now and again, particularly amongst longtime industry citizens who remember the early struggles and brewers in areas where the battle is still a near-insurmountable struggle. I find it strange, though, this notion that the entire craft beer industry must love each other unconditionally.
There are two things I want to talk about here.
The first is that I don’t love all microbrewers unconditionally, and neither should you, nor should anyone in the industry. Here’s why. Bad beer is bad for this industry. We all benefit from increased market share – brewers, bars, and beer lovers. In Seattle or San Francisco, one lousy brewer won’t hurt the market, but in a lot of places one bad brewer can.
Remember the fuss when macrobrewers launched wave after wave of stealth micros? That didn’t last long in the US, but in Canada it continues unabated to this day. We also have government liquor stores and restrictive importation policies that keep US micros off the shelves in order to support local brewers. So I have a perspective on this that not all grouphuggers have. When a consumer either comes of age or is introduced to craft beer or merely becomes curious about it, those first impressions are critical. The value proposition for a craft beer is that it will cost more money but the drinker will get a superior product. The likes of Corona and Guinness have created phantom value propositions that intelligent drinkers can easily dismiss, but microbrewers don’t have that kind of marketing clout. They have to offer real value.
Stealth micros offer some value, because the big brewers have invested the money to create an image association. This may translate to new customers for genuine craft beer, but it may not. It depends on what stealth beer is purchased. Something that is a standard macrobrew, like an Alexander Keith’s IPA, Sleeman Cream Ale or Rickard’s Red, will not create a new craft beer drinker. They may enjoy the image association but have not had their eyes opened up in terms of the flavour and aroma possibilities offered by craft beer.
Something a little better, like an Okanagan Spring Dark, Leffe Blond (as bad as it is), or a Blue Moon White, will open up eyes and potentially lead to a conversion.
But what happens when you get away from stealth micros and into real ones. Chances are, they’re going to start with something fairly plain, certainly by the standards of Ratebeerian tastes. But that’s where people start – SNPA, Widmer Hefeweizen, the local brewpub brown ale. I don’t remember the company, but someone used to have in their commercials the tag line “because you never get a second chance to make a first impression”. Well, you don’t. If that first beer is sour, skunked, or a diacetyl bomb, the drinker may well assume that craft beer really isn’t to his taste, and certainly is not worth the extra money.
Now, you’re not going to convert everybody. The beer could be in peak form and still do nothing for that hypothetical first-time drinker. Maybe they don’t want so much bitterness. Maybe they wanted more flavour and that stupid Blonde Ale the waitress recommended isn’t doing the trick. In either case, at least the case was made. But if the beer was foul, infected, oxidized or otherwise faulty, you’ve probably lost that drinker for a long time.
This is why I don’t love all microbrewers. I strongly believe that showcase beers are just that. Those are the beers that showcase the best that craft beer has to offer. You cannot, as a brewer, bar owner, or friend looking to convert your buddies, be worried about “offending” people with a bold, flavourful product. Bold, flavourful products are what craft beer is all about. It’s why the good brewers got into the business in the first place, it’s why you drink craft beer, and it’s why you want to get your friends/customers into drinking craft beer. If you shock palates, at least you’re making an impression. You’re getting people talking, making them think. You need to take this step in order to get to a higher level of appreciation for just about anything artistic. You have to show people something that gets etched into their brain, piques their curiosity.
Don’t get me wrong – I can tolerate brewers who make solely mediocre beers. There seems to genuinely be a market for that. I don’t love them, but I accept them and their role in the business. But bad beer? No. There are brewers out there who just plain suck. And it’s not necessarily quality control I’m talking about. They just make really bland beers that offer no value proposition. Bland like that ubiquitous amber ale you and your beerloving friends speak so derisively about. I mean those brewers that consistently make you shake your head. Those brewers that, when you try their new beer, you wonder why you didn’t learn your lesson last time.
Just because someone is making beer for a living on a small brewing system does not mean they are an asset to the industry. We had a purge in the mid to late 90s of mediocre brewers. Perhaps its time for another. Fewer producers making overall better beers would strengthen the industry, not hurt it. I shed no tear when a crappy brewer goes out of business. Yes, people lose their livelihood, but just as I would make a lousy car salesman and thus do not pursue that vocation, so should lousy brewers make their money somewhere else. I’m more concerned with the overall health of the industry and seeing it reach its growth potential, than for any individual human being. They won’t be broke in a gutter. They’ll be fine.
And that’s why I don’t understand why some people persist with the belief that we as members of the craft beer community can’t say anything bad about anybody. That beer rating sites are bad because people sometimes don’t like some of the beers. That brewers should always support other brewers, even when the ones needed support are screwing it up for everyone else. That we must love each other because of this David vs. Goliath struggle we’re supposedly in. A small army of well-trained soldiers stands a better chance of winning the war than a large army with a bunch of untrained soldiers filling out the numbers. Loving everybody are having that small well-trained army are mutually exclusive. I want craft beer to dominate the world, thus I do not love everyone and everything in the business.
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